Strategies for revision

Scientific writing can be thought of as a two-stage process in which we first write for ourselves to discover what we think, and then transform our writing through revision, so that it works for others, too. Below are some ideas and strategies for tackling the revision process with success.

Deducing readers’ needs

Are you a genomics researcher who’ll be submitting to a computational biology journal read by biologists and mathematicians alike? Or an environmental engineer hoping to publish in a restoration ecology journal? As science becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, we often find ourselves writing for audiences that have very different perspectives and goals from our own. So, if one goal of revision is to produce prose that serves these diverse readers, how do we decide what readers need?

  • Choose the journal you’ll submit to before you start writing. Then, read the guidelines for authors or analyze the writing of a few papers from the journal (preferably well written ones!) to get a feel for how authors frame their work, the background they include and the language they use.
  • As Paul Halmos says in How to Write Mathematics, ask yourself who you want to reach and then write to that person. That is, picture a smart, interested reader who has little background in your field and is skeptical of your approach. Then ask yourself: What extra information might s/he need to grasp the significance of my research problem? What hard questions might this person ask about my methods or results? Or, on a more basic level, what difficulties might this person have understanding my work, and how can I phrase things to avoid these difficulties?
  • Ask a general reader to review your writing before you revise. Your advisor and co-authors are excellent reviewers of the scientific content of your paper. But because they’re just as familiar with the research as you are, they may miss places where you aren’t being clear, are making leaps in logic, or using too much jargon. That’s where a general reader – your spouse, a graduate student friend in another field – can really help.

Think globally, then locally

It’s always preferable when revising to focus on “global” issues first – those concerned with the overall message, argument and organization of a piece – before addressing “local” problems, such as grammar, word choice, sentence structure and so on. Nevertheless, less experienced writers – and reviewers – often have a difficult time letting local issues go; their tendency instead is to polish, polish, polish as they write, or to correct these matters compulsively as they review someone else’s work.

What’s wrong with this? The main problem is that it can be very inefficient. Often we spend a lot of time refining a sentence, paragraph or section only to throw it out later because it doesn’t fit. What’s more, focusing on local issues too early can interrupt our train of thought, so that we end up forgetting where we’re going overall, or fail to capture key insights on paper.

Doing some polishing as we write is inevitable. But during the early stages of drafting and revising, try to stay focused on the big picture by asking yourself these kinds of questions:

  • What am I trying to say? Have I discovered my main point or “bottom line” yet?
  • How is my overall argument or message taking shape? Where am I including too much information – or not enough? Are there any leaps in my logic?
  • Is the content organized in support of my main point or message?
  • Am I serving the needs of the reader? (See the discussion above and the handout “Turning writer-based prose into reader-based prose.”)

I just can’t see what’s wrong…

Putting “fresh eyes” on a piece of our writing, so that we recognize where the problems lie and can fix them, is tough. If you count yourself among those who just can’t tell where and what to revise (and you’re not alone), here are a few strategies to help you:

  • Put your work aside for a time. At least a week is good, longer if you can spare the time. Try it, and you’ll likely find yourself saying, “I wrote that? It doesn’t make any sense!”
  • Ask a friend or colleague to read a passage from your work, and then explain out loud what s/he thinks you were trying to say. This should not only give you a sense of how clear your main points are, but it should also help keep the reviewer from picking on grammar, word choice and other “local” issues (see above).
  • Read your writing aloud to yourself. Nothing reveals convoluted, wordy and confusing prose faster than hearing it spoken aloud.
  • Get a good critique. Although we can all learn to better evaluate our own work, nobody in the end can do without a good editor or reviewer. Just make sure you pick yours carefully: Someone who’ll focus on larger issues rather than local ones; who’ll give specific feedback (Comments like, “I get lost in this section,” or “This great!” don’t cut it); someone, in short, who is exacting and honest but kind, whose feedback encourages rather than discourages you from revising. Note that you may need to explain to this person what you’re looking for in a critique.

References

N Sommers (1980) Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers. College Composition and Communication 31(4): 378-88

December 17, 2009 at 10:46 am Leave a comment

Exploratory writing in scientific writing

From what I’ve seen as a writing instructor so far, graduate students in the sciences tend to view writing as an activity that merely bookends the real work of data collection and analysis; that is, writing is viewed as means to obtain money at the beginning of a project, as well as something to be gotten through as quickly as possible once a project is finished and ready to be published.

But “exploratory” writing — informal writing outside the structured realm of grants and journal articles — also has a place in science, I think, particularly because of its role in helping us to discover, develop and refine our own ideas. You don’t have to take my word for it, however. Below I’ve posted quotes from a mathematician and a scientist on the value of free-form, exploratory writing.

“We all know that one way to work out our thoughts is to engage in an animated discussion with someone whom we respect. But you can instead, à la Descartes, have that discussion with yourself. And a useful way to do so is by writing. When I want to work out my thoughts on some topic – teaching reform, or the funding of mathematics, or the directions that future research…ought to take – I often find it useful to write a little essay on the subject. For writing forces me to express my ideas clearly and in the proper order, to fill in logical gaps, to sort out hypotheses from blind assumptions from conclusions, and to make my point forcefully and clearly.” –Steven G. Krantz, A Primer of Mathematical Writing

Examples of exploratory writing include journals, notebooks, marginal notes in books, nonstop freewrites, reading logs, diaries, daybooks, letters to colleagues, notes dashed off on napkins, early drafts of essays, and what physicist James Van Allen, author of more than 270 scientific papers, calls “memoranda to myself”: “The mere process of writing,” explains Van Allen, “is one of the most powerful tools we have for clarifying our own thinking. I seldom get to the level of a publishable manuscript without a great deal of self-torture and at least three drafts. My desk is littered with rejected attempts as I proceed. But there is a reward. I am never so clear about a matter as when I have just finished writing about it. The writing process itself produces that clarity. Indeed, I often write memoranda to myself solely for the purpose of clearing up my own thinking.” –Engaging Ideas: A Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom, John C. Bean (2001) John Wiley & Sons, pp. 97-98.

December 10, 2009 at 11:36 am Leave a comment

Writing the discussion section

The purpose of the discussion section is straightforward enough — to describe the significance of your results and what they mean to your field of study. However, organizing this section can be a challenge because the structure is much more loose than in the methods, results or even the introduction.

Structuring the discussion

A good place to start is with a one-paragraph review of your major findings that ends with a one- or two-sentence statement about their overall importance. You can then expand from there by answering the following questions:

  • How do your results fit into the larger context of what is already known about your subject? Do your findings agree or contrast with the findings of others?
  • What are the theoretical and/or practical implications of your study? How are your findings an advance over what others have shown?
  • What are the limitations of your study? Could these limitations have biased your results in any way?
  • What future directions does the research suggest?

Note: Keep in mind the inverted pyramid style. That is, it’s generally a good idea to lead with the most important points you want to make and follow with points of lesser and lesser importance.

Common pitfalls to avoid

Overstating the significance of the work. Many articles on scientific writing will caution you against this, and with good reason. However, an even bigger pitfall may be the one directly below.

Understating the significance of the work. While it’s true you should take care not to oversell things, it’s also true that young scientists tend to downplay the importance of their research. So, do think about the larger meaning of what you’ve done and then don’t be afraid to say it. As William Wells (2004) writes, there probably was a bigger idea behind your work than the possibility of protein X and Y binding to one other, so “make sure you convey that reason and that excitement.” In other words, readers should not come away from your paper thinking, “so what?”

Being vague. Related to the point above, if you make general statements such as, “We believe our model can help experimental biologists understand their own systems better,” or “Our findings are valuable for the future design of bacteria that can do X and Y” be sure to explain what you mean. What specific insights will your model offer biologists? What exactly will your models contribute to the future design of microorganisms? If you’re hazy about this, reviewers are likely to ask you to provide some explanation and evidence.

Failing to address the question or problem posed in the introduction. “The Introduction and Discussion should function as a pair,” say Day and Gastel (2006). “Be sure the Discussion answers what the Introduction asked.”

References

December 3, 2009 at 5:30 pm Leave a comment

Writing the results section

The purpose of the results section is to describe your findings as concisely and clearly as possible. In other words, be careful not to rehash your methods or discuss the meaning of your data in this section.

Organizing the results section

It often makes sense to lead with the findings that most directly address the question or problem you presented in the introduction, followed by results that are still relevant to your overall story, but secondary. One way to envision this type of organization is as an inverted pyramid (pdf), in which you start broadly with your most important findings (e.g., your model’s predictions) and then taper toward less significant results (e.g., validation data).

On the other hand, you might decide that readers need to know how your model works before they can grasp the predictions. In this case, you flip the pyramid right-side up again, i.e., start narrow with the model’s specifics and finish broadly with your major findings.

Whatever structure you choose, make sure each section and paragraph flows logically from one to the next. So, for example, although you may have completed your experiments in a certain chronological order, ask yourself if this is the best order for supporting the main message of your paper and getting readers to follow the story.

Common pitfalls to avoid

Including anything but your findings. To quote the catchphrase of the 1950s TV crime drama, Dragnet: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Including too many findings. Remember that the most effective scientific papers usually focus on a single story, message or bottom line. Thus, try to limit your results section as much as possible to those data that directly support the main point of your paper. If you find yourself trying to squeeze in many more, you might consider whether these additional findings should go into another paper.

  • Repeating what is shown in the figures and tables. Your text should summarize what the figures and tables show, not go through them data point by data point.
  • Losing the connection between the question/problem you posed in your introduction and the answer/solution: your results. In the best-written papers, this link is crystal clear.
  • Failing to guide the reader. See the discussion below.

Guiding the reader

With the exception, perhaps, of Materials and Methods, the results section is the most detailed one in the scientific paper. So, while it’s true that this section should primarily present your findings, it’s also true that readers need transitions, summaries and other guideposts to make their way successfully through all your data. Below are three strategies for keeping the reader oriented.

  • While you should avoid rehashing your methods in detail, do describe your overall approach briefly at the start of the results section, and at the beginning of each subsection, if needed.
  • Offer readers a one-to-two sentence summary of your overall findings for each set of experiments or analyses, before launching into all the specifics.
  • Describe briefly the logic behind performing experiments or analyses. For example: “Because A resulted in B, which is in the cascade of C (citation), we decided to see whether A was connected to C; therefore we subjected D to E.”*

Statements like these are not fluff; to fully understand your study, readers need a periodic reminder of where they are in the forest as they move through the trees. Otherwise, they can become hopelessly lost in all the details.

References

November 16, 2009 at 2:06 pm Leave a comment

Tips for writing the introduction

Here are a few things to keep in mind when writing the introduction to a scientific paper. I developed this material for a writing workshop I recently held with my students.

Main purpose of the introduction
To present the problem (an “intricate unsettled question,” a “source of perplexity”) you’ve addressed and why it’s important. If readers don’t grasp the problem, they aren’t going to care about the solution, i.e., your research.

Components of the introduction

  • Background that places your research in a broader context and tells why it’s significant (what is known)
  • Description of the knowledge gap your study fills (what is not known)
  • Statement of your problem/question/hypothesis
  • Description of your approach and why you chose it
  • Brief summary of your major findings
  • Statement of the major implication of your work, i.e., the take-home message

A simpler approach to the introduction – as an answer to three questions (Cetin and Hackam, 2005)

  • What do we know about this topic?
  • What don’t we know?
  • What are we now showing?

Structuring the introduction

One way to visualize the structure of the introduction is as two funnels connected by their narrow tips.

Common pitfalls

  • Failing to state clearly the problem and its significance. In a study by Bordage (2001), “insufficient problem statement” was one of the top reasons reviewers gave for rejecting manuscripts.
  • Treating your introduction like a literature review. The background you include should be just enough for readers to understand what your research problem is and why you chose it. Anything more could cause readers to lose interest.
  • Not reviewing the literature carefully enough. Omitting a key paper could lead to embarrassment – and negative reviews.
  • Underestimating the importance of the introduction. Although your findings and conclusions are the meat of your paper, the introduction is where you set the stage for them. Do this well and you’ll hook people into reading further. Do this poorly and even the coolest, most significant results may go unread.

References

  • Bordage, G (2001) Reasons reviewers reject and accept manuscripts: The strengths and weaknesses in medical education reports. Academic Medicine 76(9): 889-893
  • Cetin, SA and DJ Hackam (2005) An approach to writing a scientific manuscript. J. Surgical Research 128: 165-167.
  • Day, RA and B Gastrel (2006) How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
  • Wells, W (2004) Me write pretty one day: How to write a good scientific paper. J. Cell Biol. 165(6): 757-758.

November 6, 2009 at 12:56 pm Leave a comment

The bottom line in scientific writing

One of the best short pieces I’ve found so far on scientific writing is, “Me write pretty one day: How to write a good scientific paper,” by William Wells.*

The author gives great tips for writing each section of the paper, but what I especially appreciate is his emphasis on defining the “bottom line.” Says Wells:

The first step with any manuscript is to define your bottom line. Be realistic about how much the average reader will take away from an article. Non-experts will retain at most a single message. Make sure you have one, and then repeat it over and over again—at the end of the Abstract, in the Introduction, in the Results, and in the Discussion.

Even if you agree with this, though, defining your main message can be tough. In recognition of this, Wells helpfully offers advice for discovering it:

To uncover your bottom line, ask some questions: What was the mystery that you wanted to answer at the start? Have you answered it? What first got you excited about this area of research? With any luck, it was more than the idea that proteins X and Y might bind to each other—there was probably a bigger idea that motivated and intrigued you. Make sure you convey that reason and that excitement.

Wells’s insistence on a single message is echoed in a 2006 article** from EMBO reports. In it, the authors state:

The primary function of a scientific paper is to transmit a message—to convince the reader and the community that this is important research. It is therefore a good strategy to first think about the message before sitting down to write.

My only quibble with these authors is that they appear to view the development of a message as something that happens strictly through thinking ahead of time — that is, before a single word is typed. What I’m trying to get my students to see is that it’s okay not to know the message (or the complete message) before sitting down at the keyboard, that writing can be a tool for discovering it. Or if they start with one main point, but a different one emerges as they write, that’s okay, too. In other words, nothing’s wrong with their process when things evolve or they realize their original thinking was fuzzy — that’s just the process!

*W. Wells. 2004. Journal of Cell Biology 165(6):757-758
**A.S. Bredan and F. van Roy. 2006. EMBO Reports 7(9):846-849

October 29, 2009 at 4:14 pm Leave a comment

3 more simple rules for tutoring scientific writing

Continuing on from my last post…

8. Tell writers what they’ve done well. Pointing out the strengths in people’s writing can teach them as much, if not more, than detailing all the weaknesses. Focusing only on the problems can also send the unintended message that the writing has no strengths.

9. Be as specific as possible with your feedback. Vague comments like, “This section doesn’t work for me but I don’t know why,” “This doesn’t flow,” or “Be more concise” are extremely frustrating to receive, because they signal to the writer that something is wrong, but offer no strategy for fixing the problem. Equally frustrating is when a reviewer suggests changes or makes edits without explaining why. If I can’t deduce the reviewer’s reasons for making edits, I tend to consider the changes arbitrary and toss them.

10. Trust your instincts. The interaction between a writing student and a writing tutor is complex and often delicate. Thinking about the complexity can overwhelm me, but when I remember that my utmost intention is to help and that my good communication skills are one big reason why I have the job I do, I feel better.

October 23, 2009 at 3:51 pm Leave a comment

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